Poor worker safety through gov’t disinterest and high unemployment

Dhaka, Bangladesh – April 29, 2013: A view of collapsed Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh. Over 1,130 workers of apparel factories were killed and 2500 others were injured when the eight-storey factory build collapsed on the outskirts of Bangladesh capital Dhaka in 2013. Bangladesh is one of the major countries supplying ready-made garments to leading apparel brands of USA and Europe. Bangladesh also earns over US$ 28 billion a year by exporting apparel items.

The current edition of SouthAsia magazine has a short report on occupational health and safety (OHS) in Bangladesh that illustrate the political and social challenges for workers and citizens in a country. The article, “Poor Workplace Safety” (not available online) states that government data for 2016 list more than 1,225 workers killed and over 500 injured.  After these figures, and the fact that Bangladesh has a history of  catastrophic workplace disasters, the author, Mohammad Waqar Bilal, states

“In fact, the issue of workers’ safety has never been considered by the government on a priority basis.”

This statement calls into question the effectiveness of global outrage and pressure over incidents such as the Rana Plaza collapse or the Dhaka Fire.

Bilal writes that it is this lack of interest by the government that is exacerbating workplace risks through companies that “do not pay heed to the protection of labour rights” and the high employment rate causing workers to be more risk tolerant.

This article’s perspective is useful to remember when countries in the sub-content region have their next workplace catastrophe as will be inevitable if Bilal’s perception is correct.  The next incident will create similar levels of outrage but probably with more anger based on frustration.  However voicing outrage will be insufficient for affecting real change and a different strategy will be needed.  Clothing boycotts seem to have had limited effect on the government to improve OHS enforcement, resources and regulations.

A different strategy is required, perhaps one with more tangible “shopfloor” change, or even high-profile political delegations specifically addressing labour rights, human rights and supply chain responsibility. What seems clear is that the traditional corporate social responsibilities (CSR) has failed.  It is suggested this may be because of too narrow a focus on the corporate obligations rather than the broader social influencers.

A question posed in 2013 by the Asia director of Human Rights Watch, Brad Adams,  remains relevant today:

 “How many factory tragedies will it take before the Bangladeshi government ends its cozy relationship with powerful company owners and prioritizes worker safety?. …. Until Bangladesh regulates workplaces properly and gets serious about unsafe working conditions and those who create them, those on the factory floor will continue paying with their lives.”

Kevin Jones

5 thoughts on “Poor worker safety through gov’t disinterest and high unemployment”

  1. Safety at workplace should be the priority,but sadly it is not practiced. Providing Safe working environment is duty of every employer and right of every employee.

  2. There was a feature last weekend on ABC Landline about China’s massive wool processing factory in a government economic zone near Shanghai. While this is not directly related to this issue, a comment was made by one of the factory executives about cost pressures due to rising wages for the army of Chinese process workers. They were looking to set up in other countries to process wool from Australia and other countries. Bangladesh was one location mentioned; Ethiopia was another. The amount of investment sounded astronomical but obviously was not just for economic reasons. In the discussions that will be held with those governments, one wonders what priority would be given to safe work or does the massive investment simply trump all?

  3. The Queensland parliamentary inquiry into black lung is drawing to a close and the select committee presents its report to the legislative assembly on 12/04/2017. The committee has held almost 30 public hearings throughout Queensland and approximately 40 submissions have been provided:

    https://www.parliament.qld.gov.au/work-of-committees/committees/CWPSC/inquiries/current-inquiries/CWPSC

    It is a significant public health issue with 18 confirmed cases in Queensland and one in NSW. Since 1975, the US Department of Labor has paid out over US$45 billion in compensation payments. It’s a lot of hospitals and infrastructure. The following links provide access to some disturbing investigative journalism, which reveal how the issue has been handled in the US:

    https://www.publicintegrity.org/environment/breathless-and-burdened

    http://www.ecology.com/2016/01/06/black-lung-appalachia-scourge-returns/

    The photo in the above link is redolent of our current reactive blame the victim approach and use of lower order controls. It was taken in 1974 and there are more signs on the cage than you would see along Brunswick Road in Coburg. Little has changed.

    The transcripts from regional hearings in Queensland are alarming and reveal a culture of intimidation, blame, fear and circumvention of accountability via use of contract labour hire. It is Dickensian:

    https://www.parliament.qld.gov.au/work-of-committees/committees/CWPSC/inquiries/current-inquiries/CWPSC

    The standard of risk control must be proportional to the likely worst consequence and a fragile production and protection dichotomy will obviously arise when mercenary rednecks receive substantial performance bonuses to achieve extreme production targets.

    This reflects the comments of W. Edwards Deming……”people with targets and jobs dependent upon meeting them will probably meet the targets – even if they have to destroy the enterprise to do it”

    Corporations are an anthropomorphic fallacy, they have no memory, soul to save or body to incarcerate.

  4. It’s extremely complex . To be expected for a country the size of Tasmania with 150 million people, although not acceptable. Shopfloor change is valuable, no doubt and the poor always get screwed. The difference for us though in Australia is that when we finish for the day with our workplace OHS laws we leave the work place and go into a community with laws and community expectations that assist us being safe outside work. Its not always the case in places like Bangladesh. There are enormous social pressures that require taking risks that go against all the safety logic that may have been expected inside the workplace. I remember trying to cross a road in Kolkata 18 months ago and thinking as an OHS person should I be contemplating “risk” or is “karma” more logical. While I’m slightly off topic, its often easy to use video clips from the sub-continent and Asia as examples in our training sessions of extreme risk taking or how not to do something . While they may represent poor workplace practice, its worth appreciating they may also represent a situation of poverty and risk taking to keep a family fed. Which goes to the point about the governments needing to change but the pressure may have to be external as it is may be impossible for it to come from below, there are too many other priorities about surviving.

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